Orthodox Iconography IIΙ
The Invisible things of God have been made visible.
(St John Damascene)
The Invisible things of God have been made visible.
(St John Damascene)
St. Gregory Palamas's adversaries, rather astonishingly, accused him of being against icons and even of having desecrated one. Iconoclasm is not the first accusation associated with the controversy over Palamism, and yet, St. Gregory and his followers were accused of being anti-icon. Was such an attack just a manifestation of 'all's fair in love and war,' of 'throw everything at your enemy and see what sticks' or did St. Gregory and his supporters, by their statements, opinions, and acts, lend credexce to the allegation of iconomachy? The present article deals with this question and attempts to answer it.
During the controversy between St Gregory Palamas and Barlaam of Calabria, icons had no place in the arguments on the essence and energies of God. And yet, Fr John Meyendorff said in one of his works on the subject, and only in passing, that the opponents of hesychasm accused St Gregory and the Palamites of Iconoclasm. These laconic ref- erences1 have always intrigued me and inspire me now to investigate the theological basis of the charge. This is the objective of the present study.
I have a second motivation for conducting this research. A long time ago, I started a series of historical studies on the documents and controversies concerning Christian images. Starting with the paleo-Christian period and up to the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, I sought out the documents and controversies that were related to Christian art. Since the Reformation and its relationship to images have already been thoroughly studied and do not directly relate to Orthodoxy, I decided to limit my work to 1517 in the West.
John Meyendor , A Study of Gregory Palamas (Aylesbury, UK: The Faith Press, 1964), 89 and 95.
S. Bigham, Early Christian Attitudes Toward Images (Rollinsford NH: Orthodox Research Institute, 2004) and ‘Eusebius of Caesarea and Christian Images’, 185-216; Les images chré- tiennes: Textes historiques sur les images chrétiennes de Constantin le Grand jusqu’à la periode posticonoclaste (313–900), (Montreal: Médiapaul, 2010); L’art roman et l’icône: Le dernier art occidental à caractère iconique, (Montréal: Médiapaul, 2012) (Romanesque Art and the Icon, an ebook available on the ebook platform Smashwords); Epiphanius of Salamis, Doctor of the Iconoclasm?: Deconstruction of a Myth, (Rollinsford, NH, USA: Orthodox Research Institute, 2008), an ebook available on the ebook platform Smashwords; ‘Histoire de Léon de Chalcédoine: D’un lion féroce à un doux minou ou “Beaucoup de bruit pour rien”’, Études sur le mot image, an eb- ook available on the ebook platform Smashwords, 2017, 1-121.
These paragraphs encompass a theoretical meditation on the icon from the painter’s perspective. They treat the icon as a creative act, in light of its aesthetic implications, contemporary challenges, possibilities, and ambiguities. They aim not so much to answer questions as to explore them, in the hope of elucidating facets of the icon as a work of art that perhaps might go unexplored within a more systematic and polemical approach in current theological debate.
1. Diligently search the theological treatise, and you will be hard- pressed to find aesthetic solutions to pictorial problems. Ironically, thinking too theologically about icon painting can get in the way and stifle the creative act. Clues are to be found in the icons themselves, solutions in the act of painting itself. The task involves more than just illustrating theological propositions. The icon should be given space to speak in its own terms: aesthetically.1 Yet it is all too common to bypass the aesthetic facts. Does the painting work or not? What is form doing? Solutions are to be arrived at through unique and unrepeatable creative acts, which bespeak of ever-renewing ecclesial life. Ready- made formulas do not suffice. No method, style, or ‘school’, ancient or modern, guarantees good results. As Shih-T’ao puts it, ‘...he who is unable to liberate himself from methods winds up inhibited by them’. The method we are after is the ‘non-method’ stringing together all icon painting methods. When the painting works—that is, when it acts as the locus of an encounter with the living presence of the deified ones— theology has happened.
By the term ‘aesthetic’ I mean, as defined by C. A. Tsakiridou, ‘that approach to things that looks at their sensuous existence, at the way in which they make themselves perceptible and present to our senses. e aesthetic object is a product of this kind of vision: a record of a thing’s self-presentation registered on a panel, wall or other surface’. C. A. Tsakiridou, ‘Aesthetic Nepsis and Enargeia’, in Seeing the Invisible: Proceedings of the Symposium on Aesthetics of the Christian Image, eds Neda Cvijetić & Maxim Vasiljević (Alhambra, CA: Sebastian Press, 2016), 27–43; at 28.
The Holy Scripture has always been the main source of the Christian doctrine and teaching. It is the essential canon resorted to by the Church Fathers to appraise the correctness of Faith. The patristic approach to the Bible was anything but superficial; they were drawing on it rather with deep, extensive, and objective study to understand the sense of its verses.
St John of Damascus (c. 676, died between 780–784 AD) was a prominent scholar, faithful to the Holy Tradition. He followed the method of the earlier Church Fathers in dealing with Scriptures, mixing his sermons and homilies with the biblical fragrance to such an extent that it became difficult for researchers to tell the biblical material apart from his contributions. The language and style of the Bible became genuinely intermingled with those of the saint.
The aim of this study is not merely to summarize the teaching St John on icons, nor to give the biblical citations used by him, but rather to try to examine some aspects of the exegetical approach he applied to the biblical data, which enabled him to develop the theological defense of honoring divine icons.
Moreover, this study will try to illuminate different issues of great interest. First of all, this study, as its title shows, deals with the most discussed problem in Christianity at the dawn of Islam, which is honoring the divine icons. Another issue is the question of whether Christians at this time regarded not only the context and the content of the Holy Bible as sacred, as it contains the Divine Revelation given to human beings, but also the letter of the Bible, showing awe and respect to its literal wording.
The subject of this work is the study of a group of portable icons from the nineteenth century from the point of view of a Historian of Modern Greek Art. The paper argues that historians of art who do not approach the particular aesthetic properties of the icon as a means of giving an existential form to divinity or sanctity refuse to open a dialogue with theologians. And even though the international discourse around the history of art insists on expressing the ‘complaint’ that the reading of religious sentiment is now satisfied by the prolific production of objects of veneration without any special artistic merit,1 perhaps we should ask ourselves whether the artistic deficiency in question is because we are overlooking the fact that the relationship between the believer/viewer and the icon is not limited to passive observation. On the contrary, it is something that derives from participation in the experience of worship as a whole. As a result, the icon will not allow us to see it in its fullness if we do not respect its integrity.
The subject of this work is the study of a group of portable icons from the nineteenth century from the point of view of a historian of modern Greek art. With this in mind, it might be pertinent to present, very briefly, a number of elements relevant to the content and the periodiza- tion of the discipline of the history of art in general and, more particu- larly, the history of modern Greek art.
If we accept the starting point of this academic field as being the time of the proclamation of Christianity as the official religion by Constantine the Great, then it would include art from the Middle Ages until today.2
Martin Warnke in Hans Belting – Wolfgang Kemp et al. Kunstgeschichte: Eine Einführung, 45.
So that the concept of art in reality flows from the heart of the Christian icon. See Hans Belting, ‘Iconic Presence. Images in Religious Traditions’, Material Religion e Journal of Objects, Art and Belief, (2012) vol. 12, 236. For the temporal boundaries of the History of Art see more in Heinrich Dilly and Martin Warnke in Kunstgeschichte, Eine Einführung ed. Hans Belting, Wolfgang Kemp et al. Berlin 1993.